Anne here. The first time I went to London on my own, and as an adult, I stayed in a backpackers' hotel, renting a miniscule room overlooking a beautiful shady garden. In a big gray city, it was an enticing patch of lush green vegetation surrounded by decorative iron railings and it reminded me of the Victorian era public gardens which abound at home. Since it was summer, I thought it would be nice to sit in that garden and write some letters (yes, it was that long ago, when people still wrote letters.)
This is a photo of the photo collage I made of it —the view from my window — I was in my David Hockney photo collage phase at the time, joining up photos to give a time-and-movement element to photos. I still like the effect.
Imagine my surprise when I found every gate into the garden had a lock on it. And they were all locked. I mentioned it to someone on the desk of the backpackers' hotel and he looked at me as if I were peculiar and said, "It's a private garden. Only the residents have keys to it." And no, backpackers —and other riff-raff, he implied— couldn't use it. I admit, I was a bit shocked. The only private gardens I knew of were the ones in people's back yard.
Remember that scene in Notting Hill where Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant climb over the high fence into the garden? It was that kind of garden.
It's a feature of London, these private garden squares serving a small number of residents. The trend probably started in 1630, when the 4th Earl of Bedford commissioned Inigo Jones in to design and build a church and three terraces of fine houses around a large square or piazza at Covent Garden. It was a new idea at the time (imported from Italy via the grand tour, I think.) Of course that was a big square, open to the public.
In the 17th century the Great Plague and then the Great Fire of London made thousands of people homeless. People, more aware of the dangers of cramped housing, took to the idea of a more spacious way of life, and this influenced the speculative building boom that followed.
Of course much of the boom was of cheap and quick-to-build tenements, but some developments had higher aspirations, planning an early kind of suburb, with a square of grand houses at the heart, and a church and a marketplace, surrounded by a series of increasingly inexpensive streets and houses. The larger of these squares are household names today.
The earliest squares were simply areas of open grass, sometimes fenced with a wooden fence. The earliest square to have a real ornamental garden established in it was Soho Square. (see the pic of Soho Square below, with the sheep)
As London became more and more built up, more and more housing developments for the affluent were constructed around a square (or rectangle or other shape) and a private garden or small park built in the middle.
But by the early 18th century, many had also become choked with rubbish and were a focus of crime. Covent Garden, for instance, had become a notorious red light area. The solution was to introduce legislation by which residents were taxed to enable the squares to be properly maintained. This was a turning point. If the residents had to pay, they wanted control.
Some squares were fenced off — seriously— from the public with high iron railings, providing protection and a degree of privacy and from the hoi polloi. You can understand it — a large private garden was a safe place for your nanny to take the children to play.
Trees were planted. The big plane trees you see today in Berkeley Square (right) were planted in the 1780's.
The rural landscape was becoming fashionable (replacing formal geometric gardens) and some of these city gardens were designed to imitate the great estates, with groves of trees, fountains, statues and shady walks, giving a little touch of the country in the heart of the city. Some went to extremes in this country imitation; behind the railings of Cavendish Square, sheep grazed.
The Regency era was a time of economic boom and many new housing developments were built, many with their own garden square. Thomas Cubitt, the leading land developer of the era even established his own plant nursery to stock the gardens he built, often creating the gardens well before the houses were built.
In the Victorian era garden design reflected a greater desire for privacy with a thick planting of evergreens around the perimeter, and spacious green lawns and flowerbeds within, concealed from the public eye.
In 1840 the Ladbroke Estate took this desire for privacy even further, building the houses to face onto the street and opening onto one large communal garden at the back. This became quite a fashionable design and many other developments followed suit. It looked like this at the front (see pic left) and like this at the rear (see pic below right, taken from a real estate advert.)
However, not all of these private gardens were well maintained and in 1863, the Gardens in Towns Protection Act allowed local authorities to take over the maintenance of neglected squares. This resulted in some being open to the public.
This work was later taken over by The Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA), founded in 1882 to preserve small areas of urban open land, rescued many of the older squares, improving them and opening them up to the public.
These days, many of the garden squares in London remain in private hands, and are open to public access only on "Open Garden Squares Weekend" held in June.
So what about you? Have you been to London? Visited any of these garden squares?
Do you like the idea of sharing a large-ish garden with 20 or 30 of your neighbours, or do you prefer your own small private patch of garden? Want to share one with Hugh Grant, perhaps?
Maybe you live in an apartment, and your garden is in pots. Or do you have a black thumb?
Share your thoughts.